According to experts at Queen’s, sexual health is an individualized process that goes beyond STIs and is something students should care about.
Currently, there’s no standardized system to educate youth about sexual health across Canada. The curricula are under provincial jurisdiction, with various approaches ranging from abstinence-only programs focused on reproduction to programs enhancing sexual health and well-being.
When students first come to Queen’s, there are notable gaps in their literature on consent, healthy relationships, sexual diversity, pleasure, and physiology. Students also face geographic and racial barriers in relation to sexual health and education.
Youth who identified as 2SLGBTQIA+, for example, have reported feeling overlooked and subjected to narratives focused on cisgender and heterosexual experiences, which frequently exclude topics on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Journal investigated sexual health resources on campus and in Kingston to see if they’re meeting the needs of queer and marginalized groups within the student body.
The Sexual Health Resource Center (SHRC) is one service offering a diverse range of services related to sexual pleasure, protection, testing, and education. They are sex-positive, pro-choice, and extend their services to Queen’s students and the Kingston community.
Located in the LaSalle building, the SHRC spoke about their staff and services in terms of queer-oriented programs.
The SHRC ensures their staff have knowledge of 2SLGBTQIA+ identities in and out of the North American context to provide a welcoming space that is “queer-positive, non-judgmental, non-heterosexist, and sex-positive,” the SHRC wrote in a statement to The Journal.
The organization ensures they have queer-positive sex toys and that their packaging and products don’t only portray heteronormative relationships. To reduce stigma, they have an education-focused call-in policy so clients can address situations in which they feel judged.
Individuals in the queer community are more likely to experience anxiety, thoughts of suicide, and substance abuse compared to heterosexual people.
According to the SHRC, queer folks have a greater risk of contracting certain STIs, and these realities mean it’s important queer students have access to screening, testing and education.
One service the SHRC offers is teach-ins and booths where 2SLGBTQIA+ students can view information on safer sex products, referrals to STI testing clinics, and other resources.
Teach-ins can also be provided upon request. For example, a Don can provide one for their first-year students in residence. These teach-ins are led by student volunteers and allow students to have conversations with their own peers.
“Teach-ins provide a comprehensive, accessible education to the student body as a whole, including those without prior knowledge, about sexual health, sexuality and gender,” the SHRC wrote.
This resource is often received with positive feedback, according to the SHRC.
They also continuously update and improve their teaching materials to provide the most current information on modern health.
The most common service they provide is referrals for sexual health. They tell you where to get an STI test, how to alleviate pain during sex, how to handle issues with libido between partners, sex toys, menstrual products, and barrier contraceptive methods.
Confidentiality is very important for the SHRC; they don’t ask clients about their gender or sexuality. If they feel comfortable, clients can disclose their queer identity and access specific care.
The SHRC said Queen’s students are likely to be exploring their sexual and gender identities for the first time at this point in their lives. The SHRC’s services are meant to help with this journey of exploration and self-discovery.
“As many sexual health topics have been historically stigmatized, it is important to approach the world of sexual health with an open-minded, non-judgmental attitude,” the SHRC wrote.
They encourage everyone to be safe and attend organized events that can give people the opportunity to have an open discussion on their sexual health.
Carolyn Pukall, professor in the Queen’s psychology department, said there’s an adequate amount of sexual health resources for students on campus, but there could be a better narrative around promoting sexual health.
In an interview with The Journal, she described an increase in sexual health resources in the past few years, yet also spoke to a “divide between the student body and narratives around sexual health.”
Despite the resources available for conversations on sexual health, many people exclude this topic from their narratives. The lack of conversation could stem from a fear of vulnerability because it forces people to open themselves up to criticism and judgement, Pukall said.
Pukall explained there’s a barrier between those who study, teach, and research sexual health. Those in the field are more inclined to create an open discussion on people’s sexual health; in comparison, anyone outside this discourse does not incorporate this in their discussions.
In her courses, Pukall teaches human sexuality and brings in speakers from the SHRC to give lectures that integrate organizations on campus into the classroom. To her, students should not just think of safety in terms of their sexual relationships but in terms of their own sexual health.
Pukall said another central issue with resources at Queen’s is their lack of individuality.
She said students are lucky to have queer-specific resources geared towards identity and gender; however, everyone has their own experience and might not be offered the support they need.
It’s not necessarily the lack of resources that’s the issue, she added; it’s the lack of knowledge on their necessity in one’s relationship with their sexual health.
However, regarding Kingston as a city, Pukall is impressed with the amount of attention sexual health is given and the types of services and teachings being offered. She believes there are great resources geared towards the queer community, specifically for trans and non-binary individuals.
Yet, every service can be improved upon and given greater discourse in the community, she said.
“Can we do better, especially at supporting our marginalized groups, students and others? Absolutely. We can always do better.”
Pukall said for students to feel comfortable with their sexual health, we should promote a narrative of inclusion; we need more honest conversations and people who are good at listening.
“We’re always a little bit of a step behind what the need is because we’re constantly changing what our services are.”
Pukall added university is the perfect time to explore your sexual health because you have a certain amount of freedom from parental bonds. University gives students the space to be free from the structures of one’s family of origin, society, and culture you come from.
“[This is the] time where they are carving out, at least at this stage, their sexual health development. They’re making decisions knowing that those decisions will have some payout or consequences later on,” Pukall said.
Though for students in their 20s, this is a heightened period of time for sexual exploration, Pukall has met people in their 40s and 50s who are still working to define what sexual health is for them. She said this process is continuously changing.
“And so, really, there’s a bit of owning that in terms of the individual.”
Pukall said the use of alcohol and recreational drugs can negatively impact sexual health because they make users less present in their body. They take greater sexual risks, which lead to an increase in STIs, unintended pregnancies, and other harmful outcomes.
She compared the combination of sex and substances to driving a car: when you’re drunk or high, you’re more easily distracted and not really paying attention to what’s happening. This puts you at greater risk for an accident—whether that’s harming yourself or someone else.
“There’s this divide between alcohol and drug use. Being in the right mind to make conscious decisions that you are informed of, that you’re present and aware of what is happening and what is going to happen later on,” Pukall said.
She said a lot of people don’t apply this idea to their sexual lives, especially in the party culture here at Queen’s and across other Canadian campuses.
“I find that it’s just kind of associated with a carefree sort of attitude around sexuality, which impinges on some decisions to ensure that people are sexually healthy as they define it for themselves.”
Pukall added that when it comes to queer folks’ sexual health, there’s a gap we’re slowly beginning to address. She said there’s a lot of research emerging in the field for sexual health medicine and we’re slowly getting ahead in inclusivity. She has a lot of hope sexual health can be a part of the narrative and that students help this movement go forward.
In a statement to The Journal, Kel Martin, sexual and gender diversity advisor at the Yellow House, outlined their programs and services promoting student sexual health and well-being.
Specifically for queer students, they offer specialized health, counselling and advising, community-building opportunities, safe spaces, and advocacy to empower students to celebrate their identity and find joy at Queen’s.
Martin said they create a comfortable space for people who identify as queer, trans, Black Indigenous or as a person of colour (QTBIPOC) to “actively dismantle oppressive, racist and colonial ideologies and practices.”
Martin also provides one-on-one advising with a long list of other programs designed to support queer students at Queen’s: active living programs at the ARC like Solidarity Swims and Queer Yoga; Gender Splendor, a trans support group; a 2SLGBTQ+ sharing circle that meets weekly with Student Wellness Services (SWS) counsellor Shannon Gendron; and some academic and career development events.
Alongside these services is the SWS staff of family doctors, nurse practitioners and obstetrician/gynecologist professionals that specialize in gender-affirming care that provides holistic support for students transitioning.
A comprehensive list of the programs for can be found here.
For Pukall, bridging the gap between Queen’s resources and what’s needed begins with having productive conversations on sexual health.
“[Sexual health] is a very multi-dimensional concept that is individually defined, but also surpasses being free from a dysfunction or from an STI.”
marginalized, Queer, safe sex, sexual health
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